Growing up in 1980s mid-Missouri, not too far from Ferguson, I learned how to be white.
There was one black boy in my elementary classroom. He was funny, smart, and spoke with a severe slur because of his cerebral palsy that you had to focus on his every word to understand him. He also walked down the hallway and ran on the playground with a limp.
I got to know him because the teacher asked me to spend one-on-one time with him going over our spelling words. We sat in little desks in the hallway, me saying each word aloud and then patiently waiting for him as he slowly, but carefully wrote each letter onto the lined paper.
Then in seventh grade a different black boy, one who I’d been friends with, asked me during science class if I would be his date to the school dance. To me it was as if he asked me if I could go with him on wild horses into outer space. To me, in 1989, mid-Missouri, it seemed utterly impossible for a white girl to go to a school dance with a black boy.
Fast forward a decade and I am now a young white woman dating a young black man. We are thinking about marriage. I invite him to meet my Missouri relatives.
At first my family was concerned and cautious about our interracial relationship. Even people I barely knew were concerned about our interracial relationship. More times than I care to remember I was advised to rethink this because “what if we had children.”
On this trip to Missouri we stopped for lunch at a small town diner on our drive back after spending the weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks: my white grandparents, my white mother, my black boyfriend and me.
As soon as we walked into the diner there were squinted eyes staring at us from the kitchen. I can still feel the hatred in the white cook’s eyes.
When our food arrived, I was disappointed because in rural Missouri you can’t order cooked vegetables without some sort of pork products dripping on them. As a vegetarian I was annoyed.
But when I looked over at my black boyfriend’s plate, he lifted his hamburger bun to add ketchup and there was a fist-sized mound of straight brown hair sitting like a nest on his hamburger patty.
All I remember is that he ordered a new hamburger, but nothing was said to anyone about the reason why.
He and I never spoke of it. I’ve never told a soul until now, until Ferguson.
We didn’t get married. But while we dated my eyes were opened and I realized how much I had learned to be white. And when I crossed the color-line as a young white woman in love with a black man, people were eager to correct me, over and over again.
In many parts of this country white girls are taught to be cautious of black boys. There is an evilness to this fear and it is learned and then passed on from generation to generation.
Now as a parent to a white child, I’ve realized that we must teach our children that non-white lives matter. To my horror he has already learned, at age five, that white is better. Who has taught him this white lie?
My son was born in Sanford, Florida, where in 2013, an innocent, unarmed black boy named Trayvon Martin was shot dead for looking “suspicious.” The shooter walked away without any charges. This is the culture that has shaped him since birth.
Could it be that white children in America are learning everyday that black lives don’t matter? How will white parents, teachers, and community leaders stop this white lie from spreading?
The work of unlearning racism is perhaps one of the greatest social challenges of the 21st century.
How and when will whites begin teaching their white children that non-white lives matter?